The Ethics of Digital Suspension

At the January meeting of the Catholic Computing club, we had quite the conversation, discussing the decisions from various tech companies and their platforms to suspend or close accounts of various people and companies. While there has been a lot of back and forth depending on where you are in the political spectrum, the two questions that we tackled was whether the actions themselves were ethical according to the Catholic understanding of justice and whether the current laws fit with that understanding.

First, we acknowledged that the laws themselves are not prescribed due to ethics, but are generally written to resolve a political or legal problem. So, just because something is unethical, doesn't mean that it should be handled legally. It is also possible for something to be stated legally that creates an ethical difficulty that requires a review of each particular case.

The question of ethical action mostly revolved around whether the actions of users on a platform could be separated from the owners of the platform. To a certain degree, this is true with the understanding that each person is a moral agent and is responsible for the rightness or wrongness of her or his actions. However, failing to curb known bad acts on a platform can be construed as granting license for a person to use a platform or forum for evil. This led us to consider a Catholic concept called "remote cooperation with evil". In Catholic thought, there are roughly four different levels of participating in evil:

  1. The person committing the evil act (Shooting an innocent person)
  2. The person directly helping the committing of the evil act, known as proximate cooperation. (someone letting the shooter know that the victim is within range)
  3. The person who may not intend to help, but whose actions contributed to the evil done, known as remote cooperation (someone driving the shooter and co-conspirator to where they plan to wait on the victim)
  4. The person who does not intend, and whose actions do not contribute (someone who sees the shooting and calls 911)

While we should aim to never commit or cooperate with evil, there is a possibility that legitimate and objectively good actions can be taken advantage of to enable an evil act. Nevertheless, the more directly involved a person is with the evil act, the more likely that they are culpable (fancy word for being at fault, deserving condemnation, and needing correction).

While discussing the potential remoteness of a digital platform, we identified two different kinds of platforms: A publishing platform and a services platform. We quickly agreed that a digital publishing platform did not have sufficient remoteness to avoid culpability for the actions take on them. One of the interesting arguments was that while there is a legal distinction between moderating and editing the content on a publishing platform, in practice, there is no clear way to distinguish the two activities. For a digital services platform, there was less clarity, but we eventually settled on private businesses having the ability to "fire the client" for ethical reasons. This was different from moderating and editing, and simply a refusal to do business with a client, which all businesses have (though that could be called into question with some small business owners)

At this point we started to look into other digital goods and how they might be affected by this, such as cryptocurrencies and software. Cryptocurrencies were an interesting case because a currency like bitcoin relies upon the blockchain to function, and arguably each transaction materially relies upon the previous transactions, both good and bad. With software, we might potentially write it so that it can't be used by the wrong person or for the wrong reason, but then we would have to be careful with having that enforced legally. Since source code can be considered the personal property of the owner, forcing it to have certain loopholes for law enforcement could be considered as a violation of the 3rd Amendment of the US Constitution.

Of course, we were well off the original topic, though thoroughly enjoying ourselves. If you thought this was interesting, come join us at catholiccomputing.club

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